Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bread and Censorship: Making Radical Theatre Uncontroversial for Wikipedia

Mark Stoneman drew my attention to a CNet article on the sheer number of edits conducted on the Wikipedia article on Sarah Palin not just on the day of her unveiling as a vice-presidential candidate, but in the hours leading up to her announcement.

This caused me to return to a journal entry I had written in May of this year regarding the politically motivated rewrites of the Wikipedia article on Bread and Puppet Theatre founder, Peter Schumann ("When Wikipedia Renders One an Un-Person"), especially since his current exhibit at the Flynndog in Burlington, Vermont has once again placed his work on my radar. I found that the biographical article on Schumann had been censored yet again, this time to remove any discussion of his positions vis-a-vis the Holocaust, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In my previous article, I had noted that one contributor (an anonymous user with the IP Address of in Cambridge, MA) while acknowledging that there had been some dispute over Schumann's artistic representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had also introduced the unverified claim that Schumann's family had been refugees from Nazi Germany (a claim that contradicts Schumann's own statements about his childhood.) I also noted that another contributor (with the address of in Sarasota, Florida) erased the names of Schumann's critics, and even went so far as claiming that the reception to the work had been "quite positive" when, in fact, it had been seen as contentious whether it had been exhibited in Boston or Burlington.

I brought these matters to the attention of a wikipedia editor who uses the handle Moonriddengirl, who revised the article to present a neutral point of view, while still mentioning the dispute around the exhibit. ("Update to "When Wikipedia Renders One an Un-Person")

However, on August 24th, an anonymous contributor with the IP address of (somewhere in Seminole, Florida) published a revision in which the entire section entitled "Palestine Exhibits" was deleted. The writer from had only this to say:

Palestine Exhibits: was deleted. It was a thoroughly biased attack on Schumann's character due to political disagreements.

Compare this assessment with what was deleted:

In 2007 Schumann premiered "Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories" in Boston and Burlington, Vermont.[2] The series was inspired by ten days Schumann spent in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, as well as John Hersey's 'The Wall', a graphic account of the birth, development, and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by Nazi Germany during the Jewish Holocaust. The series proved controversial, with critics labeling Schumann's works as "anti-Zionist", "anti-Semitic" and "sort-core Holocaust denial", accusations Schumann denied, stating that "I’m not saying that what’s happening in Palestine is the same as what happened in Warsaw . . . but it’s certainly a reminder."[2] While Schumann later acknowledged that he "may have unnecessarily hurt some people's feelings" with the series, he returned in 2008 to the theme of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his subsequent art series, "The University of Majd: The Story of a Palestinian Youth", which addresses a case of what Schumann believes to be false imprisonment in Israel.[3]

Was this actually a "biased attack or Schumann's character"? That is something best judged by people other than myself. However, the real problem is that we are seeing censorship of any mention of contentious positions taken by an artist who has for decades been a leading figure in radical theatre in America, censorship of criticisms he has received, and a reluctance by his self-appointed defenders to even write about his immense contributions to puppetry and theatre. Indeed, Schumann's allies are censoring mention of controversy in which Schumann clearly wants to be embroiled.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Once Again: Disturbing News From Burlington, Vermont

Recent correspondence with Michael Strauss an artist and scientist who teaches at the University of Vermont, both by email and on his blog has alerted me that once again the deceptively named Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) are sponsoring the exhibition of Bread & Puppet founder and artistic director, Peter Schumann's artistic representations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While, I have not seen the work that is on display this year, it was Schumann's misrepresentations of this conflict (as well as misrepresentations of conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto) that caused me break off relations with Bread and Puppet Theatre in February of 2007 after having performed in all Boston-area shows since November 2003.

Strauss came to my attention when first began to address Schumann's connections with VTJP's anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, and Holocaust denying agenda. In a blog entry entitled "The Art of Social Consciousness? I Believe Not", Strauss examined Abdullah Dourkawi’s winning entry in the International Holocaust Cartoon Contest at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and why an organization that claims to be committed to a "Just Peace" would publish such a cartoon on their website. This has caused Strauss to continue examining anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic cartoons featured on the VTJP website and to address the anti-Semitic rhetoric that has begun to appear in the peace movement.

VTJP, as it happens, is exhibiting Schumann's "The University of Majd" at Flynndog in Burlington as part of a show entitled "Palestine in Resistance: 1948 - 2008." The dates are interesting, as 1948 is the year that the UN Partitioned the British Mandate of Palestine into both a Jewish and an Arab state. Unless the curators mean also to include resistance to Jordan and Egypt, they mean to label any Israeli sovereignty anywhere as an invasive occupation (which as I have pointed out previously, is precisely what VTJP does claim.)

I did not see the "The University of Majd" when it was exhibited in Boston in February of this year for reasons explained in this interview with Greg Cook of The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, so while I am uncertain of the exact content of the work, I do know that it is specifically aimed at casting Israel in a negative light without discussing the over all context of the conflict.

Thus far, the reportage from Burlington on the situation seems to be harder to come by than last year, and I had only come upon a single article by Sally Pollak in the September 4, 2008 edition of Burlington Free Press entitled, "Art Hop draws more exhibitors than ever":

Schumann’s art will be part of a group show at the Flynndog, a gallery on Flynn Avenue that participates in the Art Hop. His piece is part of an exhibit called “Open Eyes: Open Minds: Open Hearts,” curated by Bren Alvarez.

“This man has a lifetime of producing artwork that really looks at, and creates awareness about, humanitarian issues,” Alvarez said. “What I felt passionate about was being absolutely certain that Peter Schumann is welcome in Burlington.”

Schumann’s piece, on display at the Flynndog through late October, is called “Wall with Checkpoint.”

“Peter’s been interested in walls, walls, walls,” said longtime puppeteer Linda Elbow, who helped with the installation. “The wall around the Warsaw ghetto, the Berlin wall, the Palestine-Israel wall and the wall between Mexico and the U.S.”

Unlike last year, where Schumann spoke for himself, longtime Bread and Puppet member, Linda Elbow, served as his spokeswoman and created the context of Schumann's anti-Israeli propaganda, by once again creating false analogies. The Berlin Wall was built by the East Berlin government to maintain a police state by preventing East Berliners from leaving or from having direct contact with either West German citizens or their economy; the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto was build by Germany in order to deliberately segregate and starve the Jews that had been deported to the ghetto, thus five-hundred-thousand to six-hundred thousand Jews, roughly 20% of Poland's Jewish population was killed over a period of two years. The Israeli built wall and checkpoints that separate Israel from the Palestinian territories have eliminated suicide bombings in Israel and eliminated IDF counter-strikes to those attacks (obviously walls can be circumvented by rockets, which invite further counter-strikes.) However, the result has been a rebuilding of the economy and a decrease in violence on the West Bank, as well as renewed peace talks between Israel and the Fatah (Hamas, the government in Gaza, is quite another story.)

The point is that the Israeli-built wall that has caused Schumann's ire for two years simply cannot be sensibly understood as analogous with the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Berlin wall, or currently imaginary wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. When Israel's attempt to defend its citizens from terrorism is likened to an instrument of genocide, one simply engaged in a 21st century version of the blood-libel. It's not the "hard-core" Holocaust denial advocated by such figures as David Irving or Bradley Smith but a "soft-core" Holocaust denial that seeks to trivialize the significance.

The piece is made from brown papier-mache with black-paint definition and includes hand-printed banners from Schumann’s 17-question series.

Among the questions: “Whose money?” and “Whose pleasure?”

Based on additional documentation on the Flynndog's website, the "17-question series" in question is a series of wood-cuts entitled "17 questions about the War in Iraq: an elementary Iraq war inquiry." The attachment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its resolution to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while a common ploy amongst anti-Israel propagandists the world over, is nothing more than unsupported lies.

And this is the crux of the problem: It's not that art should not tell the truth; it's that art should not lie.